Telling Time with Fingers

Telling Time with Fingers

We were having an incredible end-of-the-day surf session but needed to be off the water at 6 pm to catch a flight. A good friend had flown us to Tofino, BC for a day of surfing, but the fog was expected to roll in thick that evening, so we had decided that 6 pm would be the absolute latest we could push it to. When the fog rolls into the wild west coast of Vancouver Island, you can be stranded for days. While it’s an incredible place, we all had obligations back home – including one of us hopping on an international flight pretty much right after we landed back in Vancouver.

“Anyone know what time it is?”, one of my buddies asked. None of us had a watch. I held my hand up to the horizon and said “It’s 5:45 pm, we’ve got about another 15 mins”. They laughed like I was kidding. But 15 minutes later we pulled the plug and when we got to shore someone checked their phone, it was just after 6 pm. I gloated because I like being right. :)


Being able to tell time can be an essential survival skill. While most of us carry a device that makes this simple and convenient, it’s best to have backup skills that don’t rely on electronics. It’s easy to get distracted, especially when you’re chasing animals (or waves!). And one of the worst situations you can put yourself in is being caught after dark, trying to get back to basecamp. This is when you’re most likely to get injured and/or lost.

But fortunately, this is one of those real easy bushcraft skills to add to your mental toolbox.

The basic principle, as shown in the diagram, is that each finger on an outstretched arm placed between the bottom of the sun and the horizon represents approximately 15 minutes of time. Keep in mind that this is a general rule of thumb. There are several factors that alter the accuracy of this including latitude and time of year. The farther you are from the equator, the less direct the sun travels from its position in the sky towards the horizon, especially in non-summer months. In summer months it follows a nearly vertical line from the sky to the horizon as it sets, making the last few hours of “finger reading” very accurate. Whereas in the winter, it angles more towards the horizon, so you’ll have to line your fingers up along an estimated angled path vs. a straight up and down path. But if you forget that part, you’ll actually be underestimating the amount of daylight left, so you’ll be erring on the side of caution anyways.

Using your fingers to tell time generally tells you how much daylight you have left, in minutes. But I always make it a point to know at what time the sun is setting, so then I simply have to use a bit of math (like when we were surfing) to know what time it actually is. I knew the sunset was about 7pm, so then knowing there was 1.25hrs of sunlight left (5 fingers), I could tell it was 5:45pm and we had 15 minutes of surfing left.

Keep in mind that this method of telling time is most effective when you have 2 hrs (or less) of sunlight. If the sun is higher in the sky, I find it harder to gain an accurate reading. But I also know that on any day, the sun is at its highest point at midday (noon) so then I can make a pretty good guess based on knowing the day’s sunset time, how much time is left in the day. And as it gets closer to the end of the day, I’ll use my fingers to narrow down a more accurate reading. Now adays I do this more for fun, and practice. But when we were growing up, this would tell us when to head to home. When we were kids exploring, we had to be home by sunset, so using this method we always had a pretty good idea when to start heading home.

Next time you’re out exploring, give it a try. You’ll be surprised at how accurate this is! And I wish I didn’t have to mention this, but don’t look directly at the sun when you are trying this out. :)

And always remember, the TOP TIP from our Search & Rescue friends: if you’re heading outdoors – even if only for a few hours – let someone know where you’re going and when you’ll be back.



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